When drivers saw Nick Johnson approaching their car windows at a red light on President Street during the Monday morning rush hour in Baltimore, he said, many initially waved him off or ignored him entirely.
But after the Su Casa furniture store owner and other Baltimore small business representatives held out roses, carnations, Valentine’s Day cards and chocolates — and clarified, “they’re free” — many began to roll down their windows, he said.
The Valentine’s Day-themed greetings are intended simply to spread some love and joy in Baltimore and draw positive attention to the city and its small businesses, Johnson said. More than a dozen Fells Point, Canton, Little Italy and Federal Hill business owners, carrying signs with such messages as “Su Casa Furniture Loves You” or “#LoveLocalBmore,” have handed out hundreds of flowers and chocolates, he said.
“Three days in a row people have told me we’ve made their morning,” he said.
The business owners haven’t encountered any squeegee workers so far this week, Johnson said, and the valentines aren’t intended as a response or a deterrent to the workers who often occupy the intersection. Other area business leaders have expressed frustration about the young windshield-washers to city leaders.
“We’re not looking to push people around or displace anybody," Johnson said. "We’re really just looking to put a smile on somebody’s face.”
Johnson hopes the Valentine’s Day greetings remind the public of Baltimore’s small businesses and help chip away at negative perceptions people have of the city. Small businesses deter crime, employ residents and often sponsor local charity events, he said.
“We really think Baltimore is in a hard place right now,” he said. “People are really cynical about how bad Baltimore is. ... It’s like people have to drive with blinders on.”
Baltimore is a great place facing challenges, “like any city,” said Patrick Russell, who owns Kooper’s Tavern, Slainte Irish Pub and Restaurant, and Woody’s Cantina.
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“But we’ve got a lot of great businesses in the city,” he said. “We’re still down here surviving, and we could use more folks to come visit us — on Valentine’s Day and any other day of the year.”
Russell handed out truffles and Hershey’s Kisses to drivers Monday through Wednesday, and planned to do so again Thursday, he said. (He’s skipping Friday to take his son on a college tour.)
The number of participating business owners ballooned from four Monday to about 10 Tuesday to as many as 20 by Wednesday morning, Russell said.
They understand and share the concerns about the city’s endemic crime and other problems, but they want people to know they’re committed to Baltimore and their customers, he said.
“The businesses really want to hold our politicians to high standards and keep it safe,” Russell said. “We have all of our customers’ backs when they come to the city.”
Johnson, who had the idea for the Valentine’s Day effort, said he wants to see similar endeavors beyond this week.
“I’d love to see this spread all over the city, where people are happy and smiling and waving to each other," he said.